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Meal prep 101: How to plan meals for chaotic weeks

Meal prepping and portioning food into containers ahead of time makes weekdays less stressful. Photo courtesy of Power Plate Meals / Special to The Forum 1 / 2
Person At Breakfast Looking At Recipe App On Digital Tablet2 / 2

FARGO — Scroll through Pinterest or Instagram long enough and you're sure to run across at least one vibrant photo of precisely cut vegetables positioned perfectly next to mouthwatering protein and other juicy sides — all bundled together in the convenience of one ready-to-grab container.

Meal prepping and planning is not only trendy in 2017, it's smart.

"I like to have everything ready for me. I feel it keeps me more accountable, on track," says Haylee Houkom, co-founder and marketing assistant of Power Plate Meals. "The times that I don't do that and don't prepare my meal is the time I might go a little bit longer without eating and then I'll eat something I wouldn't have probably eaten before that."

When you don't plan, people tend to eat something that's "processed, convenient, probably high carbs, high calories — it's just not going to work," says Lindsay Vettleson, a registered dietitian nutritionist at IMA Healthcare. "I usually batch cook on weekends. I already know what I'm having multiple days ahead of time — a week in advance — but that's how I'm successful with it."

Challenges of healthy eating

Food didn't use to be Houkom's focus. That is, until she entered the bodybuilding world a few years ago and launched her business which provides others with ready to eat, healthy meals that are high in protein. With those ventures, her mindset changed.

"It's so funny how people don't think about that stuff: 'What am I going to eat today?'" she says.

Chaotic schedules make it hard for people to keep their health top of mind.

"They don't plan, they don't think about their food. They might go all day without eating then they go home and eat a big dinner," Houkom says. "People don't plan for it. They look for the most convenient option. They drive home and grab something at the drive-thru."

"If you're not prepared and you do have these goals in mind or you want to eat healthier — if you don't make those goals and plans beforehand and make your healthier options available to you, it's so much easier to fall off track," she says.

Easy steps for meal prep

While some people choose to set aside a day of the week to meal prep, Houkom says it can also be done throughout the week as well.

"If you didn't want to spend that time all in one day, you could break it up in two," Houkom says. "If you're already (making food), you might as well just cook a little more at that time and have an extra meal on hand. Then you always have things a little more fresh, too."

Step one: Plan your meals. The key to meal prepping is planning your meals ahead of time for the week. Find two to four recipes for the week and write down all the needed ingredients. Pinterest is a great source: just search "meal prep recipes."

Step two: Buy groceries. "A rule of thumb when you're looking at ingredients in labels is can you understand what's in that food?" Houkom asks. "The more you're on the outside aisles at the grocery store is always a good keynote, too."

Houkom says don't forget to pick up healthy, on-the-go snacks like protein bars, yogurt and nuts.

Step three: Prep fruits and veggies. It's important to wash, cut and cook fruits and vegetables that require it so they are ready to grab and go for hectic mornings.

"I'm not going to eat a sweet potato if it's just sitting on my counter and not cooked," Houkom says.

Step four: Cook protein. "I switch it up a lot — different protein sources," Houkom says. "Anything from chicken to ground turkey or ground beef. I like fish so I'll use cod or a white fish." Vegetarian options range from tofu and seitan to quinoa, chickpeas and beans.

While some may choose to grill, bake or pan fry their meat, using the slow cooker is also an easy way to cook meat in bulk with little effort.

Now is also a good time to add carbs such as rice, noodles,

Step five: Add flavor. Healthy meal prepping doesn't have to be bland.

"You can always spice it up with different seasonings," Houkom says. "We even have a couple of dessert seasonings, like snickerdoodle seasoning, so I'll put that in my Greek yogurt or my oatmeal."

Oh My Spice and Mrs. Dash spices are recommended for health-conscious meal preppers.

Step six: Measure and portion food. Once your food is cooked, measure and distribute food into separate containers for individual meals.

Ease of mind

Planning and prepping meals ahead of time doesn't have to be hard. Houkom looks to Pinterest and food blogs for inspiration when planning Power Plate Meals as well as her own. She avoids complicated recipes that require 30-plus ingredients.

"Meal prep doesn't have to be hard," she says. "One of my favorite meals is spaghetti using butternut squash, marinara sauce — if I want to use cheese I use those Laughing Cow cheeses, putting them in the butternut squash so you have a cheesy vibe to it."

While it might take a little extra time in the moment, meal prepping reduces stress during those hectic weeks.

"If you can't work out, you can at least control the healthy decisions you make throughout the day," Houkom says. "People always say eating healthy is boring and bland, but I never eat boring meals, I love everything I eat."

Healthy substitutes

When grocery shopping, Power Plate Meals co-founder Haylee Houkom says to consider healthy alternatives to high-calorie ingredients.

• Greek yogurt dressings. "There's so many new alternatives to things that people love, like ranch," she says. "Now they have Greek yogurt ranches. Instead of having 16 grams of fat for 2 tablespoons, you have 3 grams. It tastes exactly like ranch but they use yogurt as their base."

• Butter alternatives. Houkom recommends using coconut oil instead of butter, when possible. Sources say olive oil and nut butters are also good alternatives.

• Natural ingredients. "A couple nice things I like to keep in my fridge, too, are the Wholly Guacamole packets and salsa to put in salads," Houkom says. Salsa can also be used to add flavor to a dish.

Alexandra Floersch

Alexandra Floersch has worked for Forum Communications since February 2015. She is a content producer and photographer who enjoys writing about finance, fashion and home.

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